Arming Ourselves to Death

When I was a graduate student I remember reading an account by an anthropologist of Africa who watched helplessly as local communities responded to a virulent epidemic by coming together not to develop public health measures but to identify and kill the witches presumed to have caused the epidemic.  I feel just like that helpless anthropologist whenever I watch Americans react to their latest gun massacre.  Always hoping that this time the response will be different (paradigms can change, after all), so far I have seen in the reaction to each massacre the predominance of a magical thinking that seems impervious to reason.


No matter what the magical thinkers of the NRA may say, the evidence is clear.  This graph [from], which shows that the U.S. homicide rate is almost literally off the chart, demonstrates a clear positive correlation between gun ownership and homicide.  The U.S., which has five percent of the world’s population but 50 percent of its guns (300 million guns!) has a homicide rate far in excess of any other industrialized countryBut homicide is actually the smaller part of the problem: while 12,000 Americans are killed by others with guns each year, 18,000 Americans kill themselves every year with guns and another 600 are killed in gun accidents.  Some who shoot themselves would surely have found other ways to commit suicide in the absence of guns, but the gun in the cupboard at home or the easy availability of guns with no waiting period makes it easier for some to succumb to fleeting suicidal impulses.

We now know that Nancy Lanza, the mother of the Connecticut shooter, was a survivalist.  She was collecting guns for her own protection in anticipation of societal collapse.  But the threat was inside her house, not outside, and she was killed by her own guns.  The week before, in a smaller tragedy, Joseph Loughrey of Pennsylvania put a gun he thought was unloaded in his truck; it went off and killed his seven year-old son in the back seat.  One of these stories has played endlessly in the media in recent days, while the other was a small paragraph buried deep in the newspapers, but both speak to the ways we are endangered by the weapons in which we seek safety.

Maybe it is easier not to see what is happening here because 45 percent of the eight children a day killed by guns are black or Hispanic.  The gun manufacturers whose interests are represented by the overwhelmingly white leadership of the NRA make their profits with a product that disproportionately kills those disposable kids in the ghetto.  If Newtown had been in central Detroit, would we have cared?  But Newtown shows that no one is safe.

Australians, unlike Americans, figured this out.  They are, like the U.S., a frontier society but, unlike the U.S. they do not have a culture of gun idolatry of the kind we see in the U.S. in everything from spaghetti westerns to Die Hard.  (Gary Wills, a conservative catholic whose prophetic voice I admire, calls guns “our Moloch, our god” in an angry article he wrote this week.)  After a mass killing of 35 people in 1996, Australia’s conservative prime minister John Howard banned semi-automatic weapons of the kind used in the Sandy Hook shooting and tightened regulations for registering and storing guns.  There had been 13 mass shootings in the 18 years before the new law, but none since.  Gun-related homicides fell 59 percent and suicides by gun dropped by 65% in the decade after the law was passed.

But according to American magical thinkers, the solution to gun massacres is more guns.  Thus Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America and Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia (where I teach) have both said that the way to stop massacres in schools is to arm the principals and the teachers.  TN state Senator Frank Niceley is planning to introduce legislation to require one armed teacher at each school.  This assumes again that the threat is outside, and the gun will save us from it.  But the threat is often inside, and we are arming it.  Every week I read about a teacher in the Washington DC metropolitan area who has been arrested for possessing child pornography or sexually abusing children.  Today’s Washington Post has a page three story about child care workers at one of the largest day care centers in Northern Virginia arrested for punching, pinching and dragging two year-olds entrusted to their care.  And we think that giving such people guns will make our children safer?  How long before we read about a teacher who snapped and became the shooter the doors of the school were locked to keep out?  Or about the teacher who did not secure a gun properly, so that one first-grader shot another?

Pogo famously said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”  Why would we arm our enemy?

2 Responses

  1. Lucid and so logical. But of course political and monied considerations fight hard against logical solutions.

  2. Alright, so Ameican Anthro Assoc. and Huffington Post recently published an article of mine about the anthropology of gun ownership. I cited this blog, among others. Though I challenged some of your points, I'd be honored if you guys returned the favor, visited our comment thread, and critiqued my points, at

    — Ashkuff | | How to use anthropology, in business and ADVENTURE!!!!

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